Hydrogeologist urges underground storage of water

gstapley@modbee.comOctober 25, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com
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    The American Ground Water Trust, which hosts informational workshops on groundwater issues throughout the United States, will stage an event Nov. 18 at the World Ag Expo Center, 4450 S. Laspina St., Tulare. Tickets run $50. Presentations will cover case studies and solutions implemented throughout western states. To learn more: http://www.agwt.org/civicrm/event/info?reset=1&id=156

“Groundwater, Wealth, Contentment, Health” read words superimposed onto a picture of Modesto’s beloved arch, in a slide splashed on a huge lecture-hall screen. It was the last in Friday’s presentation by an expert suggesting how Modesto and Turlock might solve emerging problems of too much pumping.

“Modesto, consider the possibilities,” hydrogeologist Chris Petersen said as he clicked to the clever slide, drawing laughter from the standing-room-only crowd of about 300 crammed into a Modesto Junior College auditorium.

Petersen, who was raised in Ripon and attended MJC for three years before going on to graduate degrees and gaining a reputation for water expertise, said this area could learn much from others that have gathered stakeholders, approached state government for grant money and formed cooperative water districts. He focused on those that inject and store water below the Earth’s surface, a fairly untried strategy in these parts.

“I believe we here in Modesto are pretty darned smart and can figure this out and can be an example to the rest of the world,” Petersen said.

The cost of underground storage isn’t as bad as people might think, he said: as little as $110 per year for an acre-foot of water, or about what two small families use in a year. That’s compared with as much as $1,000 per acre-foot for above-ground reservoirs, or $2,000 for desalinization – taking salt out of sea water, he said. “It’s not that bad,” Petersen concluded. “This is the way to go.”

The cost of doing nothing is worse: Wells continue to go dry – as many already have in the Denair area – water quality degrades, farmers quit growing and lawsuits mount.

“You’re going to be fighting your neighbor and making the lawyers rich. Who wants to do that?” Petersen said. “Either come together and work together and solve it yourselves – go to the state and ask for money; they’ll willingly give it to you – or you do nothing and the state will step in and take control.”

He said he was “stunned” that so many would give up Friday night social activities to hear him speak about a subject that many consider dry. In his 26 years as a water expert, he never had appeared before a crowd so large, he said.

About half of those in Friday’s audience were students, judging by a show of hands, and maybe a third were property owners concerned for their wells. They could be jeopardized by neighbors’ pumps, which can suck from aquifers laterally without anyone seeing it from the surface.

Growers have sunk gigantic wells to nourish millions of new almond trees on previously marginal rangeland lining the east side of the Valley. That area does not seem able to replenish its groundwater basins, compared with that under the Modesto area, which relieved aquifer stress after the city quit pumping so much when its canal water treatment plant began operating in the mid-1990s.

Other regions are much worse off than this, Petersen said, pointing to San Joaquin County, the region from Merced to Bakersfield, and India.

In a question-and-answer period after Petersen’s slide show, Oakdale Irrigation District board member Frank Clark challenged his principal suggestion for recharging aquifers, asking why anyone would want to give wealthy nut investors even more to pump. “It’s just corporate greed,” Clark said. “They’re going to keep pumping more and more, and you can’t put water in the ground fast enough to compensate for them pulling it out.”

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